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Dude, Where's My Empowerment Fantasy?
White guys don't even know how awesome they are.
Amnesia is a handy pulp means of meta-identification. In the Bourne Identity, the superspy washes up on shore with no memory, no background, no name. He is just like you, dear reader, turning the first page with no present and no history, tossed into the world sans bearings and sans self. Then slowly as the pages turn, you and he together learn not just the plot moving forward, but the unfurling past. Reader and hero are united in blankness and then in slow enlightenment. You both sink into knowledge, and your new identity of Bourne.
Dude Where's My Car? (2000) has a similar structure. As the title question suggests, the stoner buddy comedy is organized around forgetting. Jesse (Ashton Kutcher) and Chester (Seann William Scott) wake up one morning and realize they can't remember anything at all that happened to them the previous night. The film them becomes a series of (supposedly) hilarious revelations. Jesse's car has disappeared. They got tattoos. They bought a lot of pudding. Etc.
Turning the usual wounded-hero head trauma into drug-binge brain-cell death is a clever move—but it also seems to somewhat miss the point. The reason it's awesome for Jason Bourne to have amnesia, just like you, is because you (yes, you!) want to be a superspy badass. Erasing memory lets you pretend that you could be that superspy badass without even knowing it—that maybe, when you turn the page, you'll find out that's who you are. Amnesia is part of an empowerment fantasy.
But where's the empowerment fantasy in being Jesse and Chester? The duo aren't superspies; they're not superanything. On the contrary, they are, like many a blundering comedic hero, strictly below average. As their girlfriends keep telling them, they're disappointments. Asked to take out the trash, they dump the bags of garbage all over the house because they're too lazy to make multiple trips. They struggle to order Chinese food. They get tattoos that read "Dude!" and "Sweet!" In short, there is not a whole lot to admire. So what's the payoff in aligning your consciousness with theirs? Why do you want to slowly discover who you are if that involves, not superspy skills, but everydude incompetence?
The trick is that Jesse and Chester aren't exactly everydude incompetents. One of the things Jesse forgot is making out with a super hot girl. Another is that they went to a strip club. A third is that they did incredibly awesome at miniature golf. A fourth is that they found (and then lost) the Continuum Transfunctioner, a device that can destroy the world.
Jesse and Chester are, throughout, fools and bumblers, but they are fools and bumblers with hidden depths—depths, in fact, so hidden, that even Jesse and Chester themselves don't know about them. The Jesse and Chester we see onscreen may be losers who sit around the house and let some random guy come in every morning and pee on their plants. But they are shadowed by this other Jesse and Chester who, if you squint, look a bit like those superspies after all—sexy, resourceful, adventurous, mysterious.
The Bourne Identity is an empowerment fantasy that asks,"what if you could kill a man with your bare hands but didn't know it?" Dude Where's My Car? suggests a related, but perhaps even more daring dream—what if you were completely boring and inconsequential, but were still the most important person in the universe without even knowing it?! Dude!
Jesse and Chester's tale is a little trickier than The Bourne Identity, maybe, but it's not exactly driving or walking to uncharted ground. The average-kid-with-a-great-destiny trope has been a crowd-pleaser for some time. J. K. Rowling's version (out a few years before Dude) was certainly a success.
Jesse and Chester are, admittedly, and parodically, even more average than your average average kid. But that just emphasizes the awesomeness of their virtueless triumphs. The film leads them through the misty nothing of their own brains, tossing them random useful information about ostriches whenever they seem ready to stall out. The more incompetent they are, the more spectacularly satisfying their unearned successes become. Their super spy power is that the film is about them. They are, unwittingly, at the center of the universe. Just like you.
Just like you, that is, if you happen to be a cishet white guy. Harry Potter gets to be the hero of his books even though Hermione is the competent one with a firm moral compass, because, basically, guys get to be the heroes of things. Similarly, Jesse and Chester's super unearned importance is closely linked to the fact that, despite their dudeface underachiever drag, Hollywood recognizes them as the kind of people who get to star in major films. They win all the time because white guys are the winners. And the reason it’s funny is that they don't deserve to.
And then, for additional funniness, the film tosses in the quirky, laughable marginalized people. The disembodied Chinese takeout order woman, who has an accent and communicates poorly. The trans woman who is amusing because she has a deep voice and a penis and aggressively beats people up while looking deceptively femme. The gay aliens who are funny because they're gay. The sexy female aliens who are funny because they're sexy women. And so forth.
Dude,Where's My Car? isn't a good movie. But it is at least possessed of a certain vapid honesty. “Hey,” it tells it's audience, "you're no superspy. You're possessed of no special intelligence or worth. But you're awesome anyway! Here's a girl, here's your car.”
Why all this for you, you ask? Well, there is a reason, white dudes. But we've forgotten it. Or like to pretend that we have.
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First published on Patreon, 2016.